May 8, 2008
One of the first things that gastro-tourists notice about Buenos Aires, after they’re done rushing in for their requisite platters of massive steaks, is the lack of street food. Most major cities have vendors who wander the streets with small carts, or park their wagons in strategic locales, selling everything from local specialties to a cornucopia of ethnic imports.
When I first arrived in BA, I came to the conclusion that locals simply don’t like to eat standing up, nor grab something quick to take back to the office. And it is true that lunch is a more leisurely affair here than in many world capitals, with business back-burnered or perhaps discussed over a bottle or two of wine. But, there is fast food, and its not just eaten by adolescents, and there are spots where standing to eat is commonplace.
One of the issues, I suppose, is the narrowness of the streets in the central business district. There’s simply nowhere for a cart to be that would be safe for anyone involved. But parks are a good bet, and there is more green space in Buenos Aires than almost any other major city in the world. Often, admittedly, these offer a very limited selection of items – hotdogs or hamburgers, perhaps a milanesa (breaded cutlet) sandwich. Caramelized nuts are popular snacks. But that’s not lunch.
There are spots in the more working class neighborhoods, and the one that most visitors see is San Telmo, where, while not cart-based, there are little hole-in-the-wall parrillas, or grills, dotted throughout the zone. These spots are little more than a standup lunch counter, where workers on a quick break cram in to grab a choripan (sausage sandwich), a vacipan (flank steak sandwich) at any of a dozen spots, or huge slice of pizza and BA’s classic fainá (chickpea bread) layered atop at a traditional joint like Pirilo, along Defensa Street.
But the best spots for street food are the two Costaneras, or boardwalks. It’s a misnomer, as there are no boards, these are wide concrete walkways that border two stretches of the city limits. The Costanera Norte, at least the portion with street food, runs alongside the domestic airport, looking out on the river. Here, a dozen or more relatively permanent wagons offer up a range of parrilla options – from sandwiches to small plates, and covering different types of sausages – chorizo, morcilla, salchicha parrillera, as well as various cuts of meat, both beef and pork. Some few even offer up classic achurros, or innards, though generally seem to be momentarily out of them when you ask.
Join in with the cabbies, cops and service workers munching away for a quick lunch along the river. You could do a lot worse than simply starting at the eastern end with Parrilla Oriente and having yourself a bondiola con limón, or start at the other end, by the airport entrance, with a churrasquito, a thin cut of grilled beef, at El Tano Criollo. Each spot offers up its own array of condiments, from classic chimichurri and salsa criolla to interesting spicy combinations like onions and chilies.
The true hotspot for street food, however, is the Costanera Sur, located on the far side of Puerto Madero Este, running its entire length along the canal and ecological reserve. On weekdays the selection is much the same as that of its northern counterpart, though with a few more options (the occasional lamb or chicken offering) – but on weekends is when it really shines. Then, the ubiquitous parrilla wagons are joined by smaller temporary carts that serve up a variety of food from the northern regions of the country – everything from locro (corn, squash, beef, and sausage stew) to fried breads impregnated with bits of chicharron (pork cracklings). Too, in fitting with the porteño sweet tooth, there is sudden influx of dessert stands, many of them overflowing with dozens of different varieties of tarts, tortes, and other sweets, a full range of coffee options, and lines that extend down the walkway. This is a place where families come to enjoy the open air, eat a little, watch one or another street performer, and maybe take a walk through the reserve. But for the dedicated street food fanatic, it’s just one long banquet table.
Dan Perlman is a former New York based chef, sommelier, food and wine writer who now lives in Buenos Aires. For more of his scribblings on food, wine, and restaurants visit his blog at www.saltshaker.net
Thanks to Fall 08 intern Christine for sampling so much yummy street food with us.